First time box office successes can be a curse. The highly popular big-screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s thriller, Gone Girl, almost inevitably set up her next book-to-film adaptation for disappointment. And that’s exactly Flynn’s second adaptation, Dark Places, is: a drag despite its royal cast.
Charlize Theron stars as Libby Day, the money-hungry hillbilly-ish survivor of the infamous 1985 Kansas City Prairie Massacre, in which her mother and two sisters were killed. It’s been 28 years since Libby’s older brother, Ben (16 at the time of the murders), was convicted for the crime, her damning testimony at the age of seven, ensuring a life sentence.
Adult Libby is left in a bit of bind when the cash streaming in from well-wishers and bleeding hearts dries up (people need to move on to other tragedies, obviously). In desperation, she accepts a proposal to help a group of true crime-obsessed geeks (very originally called the ‘Kill Club’) to review the case, in exchange for financial compensation. Led by the “noble embezzler” and club leader, Lyle Worth (Nicholas Hoult), Libby has to confront a past she’d rather forget, not least of all because half the Kill Club members believe Ben is innocent.
Several questions emerge. Did Libby lie about what she saw? It’s been so long Libby herself barely remembers what happened. For the first time in 28 years, she visits the bizarrely stoic Ben (Corey Stoll) in prison. He insists he’s innocent. So why is he so friendly to the person responsible for putting him away? Why has he never tried to appeal? As Libby begins to probe the murders, it becomes clear the God-fearing Texan jury convicted Ben largely because of his angsty teenage involvement in Satanism. Another mystery is what happened to teenage Ben’s (psychotic) pregnant girlfriend, Diondra (Chloë Grace Moretz), who went missing of the night of the killings?
The script tries hard to be twisty and turny and gritty and grim with its then-and-now flashbacks, but there’s no thrill to it. It’s not completely awful, but the occult-themed murder mystery can’t live up to the high bar set for the genre by the tense first season of True Detective. It feels as if the actors in Dark Places had to try very hard to convince themselves to play these roles. And it’s equally hard for the viewer to buy into the story or characters. Perhaps it’s because Gillian Flynn didn’t do the actual screen adaptation for this film herself as she did with Gone Girl. It’s an “I-have-nothing-better-to-do-so-I-might-as-well” kind of movie.
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicolas Hoult, Corey Stoll
Rating: 2½ out of 5
South African release date: 11 September 2015.